Creating a cozy setting for his folk family
CAMBRIDGE - Jeff Boudreau is struggling to be heard over the din of a crowd jammed into Toad to hear Avi & Celia, a Cambridge-by-way-of-Burlington, Vt., folk-blues duo with a strong following.
On a bench squeezed into a space to the left of the stage, Boudreau leans forward to explain what compels him to dream up some of the area's most eclectic, and intimate, folk and roots-music concerts - in churches, living rooms, kitchens, and just about any other room with good acoustics. As he talks, he keeps an eager eye on the musicians setting up.
"I try to stay true and present to what I like - I'm not presenting to draw a crowd," Boudreau says of the almost two-year-old music series he's dubbed Notlob, which references a line from a famous Monty Python sketch in which the English town of Bolton is invoked as a failed palindrome (Boudreau happens to live in Bolton, Mass.). "People are starting to trust me," he says. "They're coming to shows not having heard the artist. Producing is like having a personal jukebox. It's a labor of love."
Right before Avi & Celia take the stage, one half of the duo - Celia Woodsmith, who possesses a big, brassy voice and the personality to match - cheerfully asks Boudreau for a hand arranging lights. "We moved down here [from Vermont] a year and a half ago, and it was sort of intimidating coming into this scene," Woodsmith tells me. "There are so many great musicians, but then all of a sudden, it's like a big family." She turns to Boudreau. "He's out there and does a good job."
This Avi & Celia show isn't a Notlob concert, but the pair is part of a growing network of musical friends Boudreau's made over the years. He even promoted the gig in his latest e-mail newsletter highlighting upcoming folk, bluegrass, Celtic, and other roots-music events in the area. At a dozen downloaded pages of show recommendations, artist bios, and pleas to recruit more volunteers for his series, the monthly missive is pretty ambitious. But then, so is Boudreau.
After the economy slowed and he lost his job as a materials manager for a bio-tech company - where he handled everything from scheduling to purchasing to inventory control - Boudreau decided to put his organizational skills to use. He kicked off the first Notlob concert in June 2007 and has hosted more than two-dozen shows since, most of them intimate "parlor concerts" at the historic 40-seat Loring- Greenough House in Jamaica Plain, as well as a handful of others at the Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in Somerville. Finding an optimum space isn't always an easy task.
"I wanted to present the music in an environment that was conducive to listening," he says of a series that relies on donations and volunteers to meet expenses. "I wanted to build a symbiosis between the musicians and the audience, and that's not possible in a commercial space. I'm always, always looking for that small, old room."
Boudreau describes Notlob as a fluid, constantly moving organism - a state of mind as much as a music series - which is fitting considering all the changing venues. The draw was so consistently strong at the Loring-Greenough House that the caretakers deemed the small dwelling too delicate to handle all the foot traffic. Tomorrow night's double-bill pairing of the highly regarded folks musicians Bob Franke and Martin Grosswendt will also mark the final show (at least for the time being) at Clarendon Hill. Starting with the April 11 concert featuring Broken Blossoms and the Folk Arts Quartet, Notlob will move to the Park Avenue Congregational Church in Arlington. And on May 16, a new Notlob series named the "Concerts in the Kitchen" debuts at the Newton History Museum at the Jackson Homestead with a performance by Celtic music standouts Sean Smith, Katie McNally, and Doug Lamey. And yes, the performance space is actually the homestead's former kitchen.
"The concerts always have a warm atmosphere and are fun to play," says Medford singer-songwriter Alastair Moock, who's been a Notlob participant. "From a musician's perspective, I really appreciate the effort Jeff puts into his shows. Nobody on the Boston folk scene works harder to pull a concert together."
Boudreau, who jokes that he's "older than the Worcester hills," though he's actually only 55, dates his involvement with folk music back to his days growing up in Grafton, not far from the iconic Old Vienna Kaffeehouse in Westborough where he used to go to catch folk acts.
"All of my life I've been into the music - traditional folk music like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie," Boudreau says. As a teenager, he was also turned on to the emerging folk-rock acts of the day, such as the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and Neil Woodsmith. "I had friends who had great musical taste and would introduce me to the great blues players. So I'd be listening to Muddy Waters while everyone else would be listening to the Monkees." Boudreau laughs impishly, and the noise onstage swallows up his voice. He doesn't seem to mind.
Know about something cool on the local music scene? E-mail Jonathan Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org.